25 April 2009

With the Beatles

...was the only way I could answer the questions in the Meme KCM tagged me with at Zen Mischief

1. Are you a male or female: Girl
2. Describe yourself: I Am the Walrus
3. How do you feel about yourself: I Feel Fine
4. Describe your parents: That Means a Lot
5. Describe your ex boyfriend/ girlfriends: I Should Have Known Better
6. Describe your current boy/ girl situation: All My Loving
7.Describe your current location: Octopus’s Garden
8.Describe where you want to be: Norwegian Wood
9. Your best friend(s) is/ are: In My Life
10. Your favourite colour is: Yellow Submarine
11.You know that: Tomorrow Never Knows
12. If your life was a television show what would it be called: Eight Days a Week
13. What is Life to You: Magical Mystery Tour
14. What is the best advice you have to give: Let It Be

13 April 2009

Reading Up an Appetite

Still with Mrs Beeton, the editor of a recent edition of Beeton’s Book of Household Management, Nicola Humble, commented

"Household Management must rank as one of the great unread classics. Everyone has heard of it, a number of people own a copy (often an early twentieth-century edition, much expanded and bearing little relationship to Beeton’s original text), but it is rarely considered as anything other than a culinary curiosity."
(Oxford World’s Classics, 2000)

While I think I’ve never made anything from a Beeton recipe, I’ve certainly enjoyed reading the book many times over the years (and yes, it is an Edwardian version, with colour plates of some incredibly fancy food). But then I shared with my mother the habit of reading cookery books for pleasure rather than use, and still have her reading collection (she didn’t have a using one, while I haven’t quite got to that point). It includes the aforementioned Mrs Beeton, ‘Tante Marie’s French Kitchen’ (even if I never get round to making Gateau St Honoré for my birthday, I’ve imagined it), ‘Continental Cookery for the English Table’ by Edith Siepen (1915) ‘Selfridge’s New Model Cookery’ of 1929 (bring on the Mint Juleps) and the delightfully titled ‘Emelie Waller’s Cookery and Kitchen Book for Slender Purses’ (1935).

Books about food (as opposed to actual cookery books) seem to be rather more usual than they were in my childhood. One recent example I have is Nigel Slater’s ‘Eating for England’ (2007), in which one of the more telling things is his pair of stereotypical lists of British picnic food, then and now: ‘then’ is boiled ham; tongue; salad cream and iceberg lettuce; cress, beetroot, cucumber; bread and butter; lemon barley water, Vimto, Mateus rosé; strawberries and cream; Neapolitan ice-cream. ‘Now’ sounds almost ridiculously decadent, with its chargrilled squid, fresh chillies, rocket; buffalo mozzarella, basil, tomatoes; grilled chicken, olives, lemon, rosemary; focaccia, thin-crust pizza; goats’ cheeses; pannacotta; peaches, melon, raspberries; Prosecco, Pinot Grigio. A bit exaggerated? Sure. But there’s a lot of truth in it, if only that we’re rather used to having all this variety, often at relatively low cost, at any time of the year.

Some of the older examples of books about food strike me as even more remarkable reading, and two by novelists come to mind: Stephen Lister’s ‘Fit for a Bishop: or How to Keep a Fat Priest in Prime Condition’ and Nicolas Freeling’s ‘Kitchen Book’. Lister was bravely writing in the late 1950s, about Mediterranean food, for a UK audience who could buy olive oil only in tiny bottles at the chemist’s, profoundly mistrusted the mere mention of garlic, and had probably never heard of half the foods he mentions – quiche lorraine, anyone? People must have bought it, though, if only as a curiosity, or thinking it was another of his ‘St Monique’ books, as there was a sequel ‘More Fit for a Bishop: How to Maintain Champagne Tastes on a Beer Income’.

While saying that it is not a cookery book, he does include recipes, including an extraordinary-sounding one for a pudding which he tentatively calls Angel’s Whispers and describes as being “coils rather like bedsprings but with a quite different flavour” – basically a batter of egg yolks, evaporated milk and flour, injected in dollops into a pan of smoking hot oil from a syringe, and deep-fried. Edible chemistry, that one, clearly.

Freeling published ‘Kitchen Book’ about twelve years later, when we’d moved on a bit gastronomically, though the British weakness for gimmicky dishes like Chicken Maryland still gave him plenty of scope for satirical comment - and to think we still had the pleasures of baked bean pizza to come...

As usual when reading about the chef’s working life, I really wonder how anybody can stand it at all (Bill Buford’s ‘Heat’, published in 2006, is particularly masochistic in detailing the burns, the cuts, the impossible hours, the abusive bosses). But Freeling’s time in the kitchens of French hotels reads so vividly: the larger than life characters (staff and guests alike), the ingenious way dishes can be constructed from almost nothing (‘rien se perd’), the kitchens and the grandiose buildings, the way the cooks all spoke the kitchen lingua franca called sabir. My favourite chapter describes how in a freak instance they ran out of curry one lunchtime: he asks the Chef Monsieur Bonvalet (sarcastically nicknamed ‘Dad’) if he will declare it unavailable:
“No no – make more – I help”
Might have known – the roast lamb could always be sold again, but when would come another day so golden for making a profit on scraps? Bonepickings were scoured from every corner of the larder, cooks crowded round to Dad’s howls, and the soup-cook’s reserves were raided.
“But I got no more onions”
“Give more colly, va.” He was quartering potatoes with of all things a long ham knife.
“I got no more potatoes”
“Give them rice” screamed Dad. Two boys were sent staggering to the sink with a big pot.
“Come lazy ones, fainéants, fesses d’huitres, no wash off, no put kalt wasser, égouttez, drain and servir like so.”
Curry was served on flat dishes, in soup bowls, in cloche covers; it was war, it was splendid. At three in the afternoon there was rice all over the floor.
“We sell good” said Dad, satisfied for once to his very depths, and bought us all a beer.

Fortunately, during the writing of this blog I have been sustained by lunch of home baked bread and ham, and fourses of coffee and Fudge’s succulent Belgian chocolate florentines…

05 April 2009

The trivial round, the common task...

In a break in the hen stuff (i e domestic tasks), I wondered what Mrs Beeton recommended for the day…

Monday – The home washing
Tuesday – Sweeping and cleaning of servants’ bedrooms or one or two other rooms, and stairs cleaned down to lower floor
Wednesday – The sweeping and cleaning of best bedrooms, and windows
Thursday – Cleaning and turning out of cupboards, and cleaning of passages and remaining stairs
Friday - Sweeping and cleaning of drawing room, and cleaning of silver
Saturday – Sweeping and cleaning of dining room and kitchen, tins, coppers, &c.
Besides these daily tasks mentioned, must be reckoned the bed-making, the dusting, the cooking and washing-up, and all the hundred and one things that have to be accomplished in the smallest of households…

I like that last comment – it has a slightly exasperated tone about it, and I'm sure young Isabella would rather have been playing the piano. If I have difficulty getting to sleep, I count the number of these sort of things I’ve had to do for the day!

02 April 2009

Oh Ingerlund, Are Wunderful, OhIngerlundAreWunderful…

Well, OK, maybe it wasn’t a very good idea to go home on the Metropolitan Line last night, as the train passes through Wembley Park tube station, and England were playing the Ukraine at Wembley stadium. Nor was it a good idea to be carrying a large string bag of food, including fruit. But it was interesting. Sort of.

It all began quite quietly, too. A few fans got on at Liverpool Street, normally dressed, but talking a bit louder than usual. I gave them a wide berth, and went to stand by the door. By the time we left King’s Cross we’d been joined by the cabaret , who were wearing white plastic hats with the St George’s cross on them, and jumping up and down and singing at full throttle (with actions). At this point I more or less gave up on The Times crossword and involuntarily went into folklore mode. I was amused to hear that they only reliably knew four tunes:
The J P Sousa march Stars and Stripes Forever
When the Saints Go Marching In
She’ll Be Coming Round the Mountain When She Comes
The National Anthem.

Many of the chants can be adapted to fit any of the first three, and they apparently sang whichever one took the fancy. Unsurprisingly the lyrics aren’t exactly taxing, either: even the infamous ‘Vindaloo’ song, which after all doesn’t consist of very much more, was reduced to the phrases ‘nah nah nah’ and ‘Vindaloo’, sung to Tune 1 (or was it Tune 2? – hard to tell by that stage).
Last night’s favourite (Tune 3, of course) was
There were ten German bombers in the air/ There were ten German bombers in the air
There were ten German Bombers, ten German Bombers, ten German Bombers in the air
And the RAF from England shot them down/ And the RAF from England shot them down/ And the RAF from England, RAF from England, RAF from England shot them down
(definitely ear worm territory, unfortunately).

At Finchley Road, on surged vast numbers of the Desperate (and muscular): We Must Get On This Train, And What’s More We’re Going To. I’m quite strong, and not small, and even I was rolled round and jammed against the partition so that I couldn’t move: how long can you hang on to the shopping but keep the extremities from going numb? Though at least nobody’s hands ended up where they shouldn’t, and it meant that we were no longer being bounced up and down by the singers, since they couldn’t move either. Then the train stopped at Wembley Park, thousands of people got out of my compartment (that’s certainly what it felt like), and the three of us who were left relaxed and sat down…